Italy takes wobbly politics all in stride

In many ways, the Italian political scene has not been so animated in years. A largely apathetic electorate two weeks ago turned in a surprise no-confidence verdict that has necessitated some deep soul-searching on the part of winners and losers alike.

And as the new members of Parliament took their seats this week, discussion focused on the need to reform Italy's multiparty system. For there is scant hope that whoever heads the new coalition government will be able to govern any better than the 43 prime ministers Italy has had since 1947.

The problems seem almost insurmountable. Inflation is running at 16 percent - the highest in any industrialized nation and three times the average of any of Italy's competitors. Unemployment hovers at 12 percent with 1.2 million young people waiting to break into the job market.

Industrial production is hitting record lows. The public deficit is running at nearly 18 percent of the gross national product. That equals $4,000 for every Italian. The deficit is bankrolling huge noncompetitive state industries. The largest of these state-supported conglomerates, IRI, which is involved in banking, airlines, and communications, is recording debts of $23.7 billion - almost the size of the state of California's entire budget.

The solution, say Christian Democrats, the country's largest political party, is to declare war on inflation and spending and at the same time raise revenues. But the workers are testy and not in a mood to make sacrifices. The nation's 1 million metal and engineering workers are poised for strikes to defend their jobs and benefits, starting Thursday.

More important, the Christian Democrats no longer have the clout they had maintained since World War II. Voters registered their disgust with the lumbering, self-interested, and at times corrupt methods of governing used by the Christian Democrats and penalized them 5.4 percent of their majority. The Christian Democrats now hold 32.9 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, a mere 3 percent more than the Communists, who by and large sustained their strength.

Such results are the ingredients for yet another wobbly, ineffective, five-party center-left coalition. ''The growing dispersion of the political forces that resulted from the recent election could be an obstacle to formulating policy and consolidating faith in the ability of the state's administrators to handle the economy,'' said Guido Carli, former governor of the Bank of Italy and newly seated Christian Democratic senator.

Senator Carli added, ''It doesn't seem unreasonable to fear we have taken a step in the direction of the Weimar Republic.''

Fiat chairman Giovanni Agnelli is somewhat more optimistic. ''I believe this could be a stimulus for everyone. At Fiat we unite in front of a crisis, and we work better. Let's hope it's the same with the political forces,'' he said.

President Sandro Pertini summed up the quandary perhaps better than anyone else: ''Political situations are always difficult.'' He indicated the choice of prime minister would be swift, since his vacation begins Aug. 1.

Insiders say the choice is likely to be Bettino Craxi, the Socialist leader who provoked the fall of the last government headed by Christian Democrat Amintore Fanfani. And they say it is likely that, to convince the Christian Democrats of his worthiness, Mr. Craxi will agree to forsake his own economic program for theirs. It is also likely the Communists will make their weight felt during the formation of a new government.

Most predictable of all is a future filled with more early elections, renewed government crises, even greater alienation of voters, and an economic situation appearing on the verge of collapse.

But Italians know how to survive economic and political chaos.

Slipping around the rules of bureaucracy is an art Italians excel at. There may not be anyone willing or strong enough to define an economic policy at the government level, but resourceful businessmen have devised their own economic system, the black economy, which enables them and Italy to prosper.

Almost everyone works two jobs - one declared and one not. Plumbers work in shops by day and fix pipes at night. Porters are tailors in their off hours. Postal employees are hotel concierges.

Economists estimate a quarter of the work force is involved in the underground economy in some way, contributing between 20 and 35 percent of the gross national product.

While large state-run enterprises go deeper in the red, factories with fewer than 20 employees are thriving. More flexible and unencumbered by social contributions than the large firms, small businesses have been able to respond positively in the current economic crisis. It is largely their ingenuity that has kept Italy competitive in the markets.

Economists project a continued zero-growth year but predict that worldwide economic recovery will boost Italy's prospects this autumn. So even though the country's political situation is once again at a probable stalemate, life will go on in Italy, and will probably go on well.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.